BLUES DANCING

By Diane McKinney-Whetstone

Morrow. 307 pp. $24

Reviewed by Opal Moore

With the publication of her first novel, Tumbling, Diane McKinney-Whetstone positioned herself as a significant new literary voice of a younger generation. The novel's romantic-mythic black characters had both charm and historical perspective. Her clean, well-shaped, rhythmic prose revealed a sophisticated, confident writer teasing out her subject: black folk, in love and suffering.

Blues Dancing, Whetstone's third novel, loses that wonderful prose style but continues her theme of black love. Verdi Mae and Johnson should never have met. Verdi is a "pampered only child of a prosperous preacher and his wife" while Johnson is "a city boy, clinically depressed mother, father who'd left when Johnson was ten." But this is the 1970s, a moment of convergence between blacks and whites and social classes. It is also the beginning of the decade of disillusionment that followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John F. and Bobby Kennedy, shown in instant replay on TV; it is the decade that witnessed the disintegration of the Black Power movement and the introduction of hard drugs into the African-American community. It is the decade of experimentation, so Verdi does not go to Spelman College, that haven for the daughters of the black middle class, and Johnson is plucked from the hard streets of Philadelphia by a social program and sent to a good white state university. There they both meet Rowe, an up-from-poverty, straight-laced, black professor and his wife.

This triple encounter between Verdi Mae, Johnson and Rowe in a "new" white world is not about race. It is about the complicated emotional consequences of the integration of members of distinct class categories -- the unsupervised meenage a trois between a daughter of the black middle class, an unpolished son of the black working class and a bootstrap success story of a college professor tortured by his own fear of black poverty.

The trouble begins when Johnson, lonely and saddened by the depressive state of his mother over the loss of his two brothers (one dead, one moved to the opposite coast), begins to experiment with drugs. In a short while, Johnson graduates from a little occasional grass to Quaaludes in orange juice to a heroin habit. Even though Verdi's cousin Kit and her Aunt Posie and a college friend, Tower, all know that Johnson is a junkie, no one intervenes and no one tells Verdi. But when she discovers it (only because Johnson is increasingly impotent), she gives the matter a few moments of thought, then tells him, "Show me, Johnson. Show me what you've gotten yourself into . . . I want to do it too." The narrator explains this amazing decision by saying, "she thought the only way . . . to save him was to understand him." Verdi quickly descends into her own drug dependency but is rescued by Rowe, the married professor whose love for her serves as a frame for the novel and a mild conflict as she and Johnson seek reunion.

In the end, McKinney-Whetstone has too much on her plate. What begins as a story of the profound and needy love between two people, or about class divisions, or about a romantic competition between two men for one idealized black woman (churchgoing and moral yet "a bad girl," intellectual yet naive, coy yet adventuresome and sexually insatiable!), or about the social contradictions of the decade, or about self-esteem and masculine control, ends up being about Verdi's lack of character and substance. The novel, so consistently focused on the romantic, resolves unexpectedly in a sketchily developed subplot: Verdi's professional work as a special needs counselor for children.

If subject matter alone could dictate, Blues Dancing would have been an important novel. However, McKinney-Whetstone only "dibs and dabs," as her characters would say, in the compelling aspects of their conflicts and their complex world. The novel is overly preoccupied with its romantic and sexual detailing while other themes drop in and out of the story as the various plot twists require. Still, we see the talent of the writer elbowing its way into view in some of the more dramatic scenes. One concludes this book hoping that the writer will, like the autistic child Verdi works with, find and accept the difficulty and complexity of her own voice.

Opal Moore teaches literature and creative writing at Spelman College in Atlanta.